What is a service dog?
A general definition is a dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks to assist the handler who is disabled. Check out the ADA link for a more involved definition, but we will keep it general for the moment.
Trotz and I work pretty hard on his training. Training that will take a lifetime. Every day. We may attend one or two classes a week, but we train every day. Trotz is not an obedience dog, show dog, police dog, guard dog, therapy dog, or guide dog. If you see us out in a public place, together, he is working. If I’m alone, then I’m somewhere it is inappropriate for me to have a service dog, or he has called in sick that day. If he is alone, I’m either extremely close by or you should probably call me right away.
My point is, he isn’t with me simply because it makes me happy to have my buddy with me everywhere I go. He has a job, a job that is difficult, varied, and complex. It is more than just a few tricks and a bunch of obedience tasks, he has to think, evaluate, and alert. He has to anticipate and act. Sometimes without a signal or command from me. He has to remain aware of me and focus. If he misses a cue, it can be a huge problem.
Let me give you an example or two, or a dozen.
Trotz will alert me if my blood pressure spikes. My blood pressure has been unstable for a very long time, and it went untreated for a very long time, so I don’t always recognize when it gets too high. He knows when it goes above 150.
Don’t ask, I don’t know how he knows, he has never told me. However, I do test him on it, often. If he alerts and it’s not high, I tell him thank you. If he alerts and it is high, I praise him and give him a treat. Trotz likes treats, he likes praise, he isn’t thrilled with a simple thank you, so he doesn’t bother when it’s low, and over time, he has become 98% accurate on his alerts.
So let’s say you are a manager of a McDonalds, perhaps you don’t see us when we come in and order our food, but someone alerts you to our presence.
Looking at Trotz, you see that he is wearing a marked harness indicating he is a service dog, but you would feel more comfortable verifying this for the safety of your customers. Ok, I’m good with that. So you approach and ask, “Is that a service dog?” I reply, “Yes, this is my service dog.” This is good, you can stop now and go on your way, you have done your duty.
Ah, but maybe you want to be really sure, so you ask, “What tasks does he do for you?” This is still good, I’m with you here.
“Trotz alerts me when my blood pressure spikes and assists me when I fall down”, I answer with the short version because my fries will be stone cold if I had to tell you every single thing Trotz does for me.
This is where you smile at us, maybe even offer to “let me know if there is anything we can do for you”, then go on your way. Mostly just stop. This is all you are allowed to ask per ADA and good manners. When this happens, we are all happy.
Sigh. Notice I stress the go on your way bit? All too often, there seems to be a need to prolong this interaction.
If your customer is at the soda machine, filling her cup, and her dog is sitting next to her, facing out towards the restaurant, I would really like you to stop and think for just a moment.
The first question you should ask YOURSELF is why this highly trained dog is facing away from his handler, watching you approach. One possible answer would be that the handler has a extreme startle response and the dog is trained to alert the handler to prevent a trigger of said extreme response.
If you feel as though you must really communicate with the handler at that exact moment, perhaps to say a fresh vat of unsweet tea will be ready in 2 minutes, might I suggest stopping several feet away from the team and saying something like, “Excuse me, there will be some fresh tea up in just a minute”.
Walking up and attempting to pet the nice service dog, startling the hell out of the handler, gushing in a sweet, high-pitched voice how much you just love dogs, while making kissy sounds and locking gazes with the dog, staring him down like a serial killing, insane stalker is probably not the way to go. And it’s RUDE.
Continuing said behavior after the handler asks you to stop, making excuses that you just can’t help it because he is so beautiful, and making a complete ass out of yourself in front of your staff and your customers is not the way to win friends and influence people. Unless you are 3 years old and your Mom is looking the other way, this is not acceptable behavior, stop it. Then go away.
Do you understand what you are doing to me? I know you think this is about you, but it really isn’t, it’s about me. Your customer. Your neighbor. Your fellow human being.
First, once I get seated and Trotz goes under the table, all those people in the restaurant are going to forget he is there. Trotz is a good service dog, he is very quiet and still while working. So I won’t be subjected to people staring at the circus you have decided to include us in. I won’t have to be uncomfortable, well, no more uncomfortable than those hideous plastic seats make me. Other people will not have your example to follow, interrupting my meal because they think they have the right to interact with the “puppy” also.
You are attempting to force me into a social interaction with many complete strangers, you are attempting to force my dog to behave in a manner that is completely against both his nature and his extensive training. You are stressing me the hell out and I would really appreciate it if you would just stop. Right now.
What else are you doing? Well, you are intentionally diverting my service dog’s attention to your shenanigans while my blood pressure rises. If he misses the alert, you may have to fill out an incident report when I stroke. If I don’t die or become a vegetable, you get to explain, in court, why you felt it necessary to try to kill me. I get the feeling that you are going to blow it in court and continue the same behavior, but I could be wrong.
You are making me feel unsafe. You are making me feel unwelcome. You are making me feel vulnerable.
Trotz is trained to ignore the “friendly stranger”, stop forcing the issue. It has nothing to do with you or your character, it doesn’t mean dogs don’t just love you right back. It means he knows his job and wants you to go away so he can get on with it.
By continuing this behavior you cross from “friendly stranger” into a real threat. Don’t do that to us, we’ve worked very, very hard together so that I can explore my little world with a measure of security and assurance. Just stop and go back to work, let me enjoy my fish sandwich and fries. In return, I will promise my service dog will not poop on your floor or go Cujo on your employees. Hell, Trotz will even make sure I don’t slip and fall in the puddle of water you left on the floor while making goo-goo eyes at him.